Leary, Lewis Sheridan

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Lewis Sheridan Leary


Lewis Sheridan "Shad" Leary accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal (October 1859), where he was killed during the gun fight with federal troops. Leary was said to be handsome and to wear his wide-brimmed hat at a rakish tilt, which was the first sign of his reckless, yet courageous nature.

Leary was born of free parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1835. He had never been enslaved and was without slave ancestors. His father reportedly was Jeremiah O'Leary, an Irishman, who fought in the American Revolution under General Nathaniel Greene. His mother was of mixed heritage, partly African, partly Croatan Indian tribe of North Carolina that is believed by some to be descended from the colonists left by John White on Roanoke Island in 1587. Lewis grew up in Ohio, where he learned from his father how to make harnesses and saddles. In his father's home, he was privately tutored and attended the free colored people's school in Fayetteville. He later dropped the "O" from his name, going by the last name Leary.

Though he was himself free, Leary hated slavery. The story is told that as a young man he witnessed a white man beating a slave. He decided to defend the slave by beating the white man. As would be expected, his actions caused so much distress in the community that he was forced to escape across the Cape Fear River under the cover of darkness. Leary then traveled northwest until he reached Oberlin, Ohio.

Arrives in Ohio

In 1857 he arrived in Oberlin, Ohio. He spent some time studying at Oberlin College and was able to support himself by designing and decorating saddles. Leary also displayed unusual musical talent and learned to play several instruments.

While in Oberlin, sometime during the years 1857 and 1858, he met and married Mary Sampson Patterson, who also attended Oberlin College. (Patterson was the grandmother of Langston Hughes.) Leary, for reasons known only to him, did not inform her or his sister who also lived in Oberlin of his plans to join the infamous white abolitionist John Brown. He left his wife and their six-month-old child to rendezvous with Brown in Virginia. Leary did, however, manage to send his family messages before he died of gunshot wounds at Harpers Ferry. After his death his wife also received the torn and bloodstained cape in which he died. In 1899, the body of Leary was disinterred at Harpers Ferry. It was reburied at North Elba, New York, near the grave of John Brown.

Harpers Ferry Experience

Leary accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal in October 1859, where he was killed during a gun fight with federal troops. He had first met the abolitionist's son who recruited him in the spring of 1859. The elder Brown had come to Ohio on his way to Harpers Ferry. He was visiting his son, John Brown Jr., at his home in West Andover, Ohio, and he wanted him to recruit and direct young volunteers to the elder Brown's secret rendezvous point in Virginia. John Brown Jr. went to Oberlin and met John Langston who suggested that Lewis Sheridan Leary and John Copeland Jr., Leary's nephew, might be persuaded to join the elder Brown. Copeland was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and moved to Oberlin in 1834 where he, too, attended Oberlin College. The young men were invited to meet John Brown Jr. and, after a lengthy discussion, agreed to join John Brown's raiding party. Both Leary and Copeland were involved with John Langston in the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society.


Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 17
Moves to Oberlin, Ohio
Marries Mary Sampson Patterson sometime during these years
First and only child is born; meets John Brown and agrees to help him raid Harpers Ferry Arsenal; killed at Harpers Ferry

Leary was one Brown's first recruits who committed directly to the raid at Harpers Ferry. Copeland and he departed for Virginia on September 1859, to fight to free slaves. Leary, age twenty-five, and Copeland, age twenty-three, joined Brown's small band on a farm near Harpers Ferry in Virginia. They received about three weeks of training. The company was made up of twenty-two men, including John Brown and three of Brown's sons. Seventeen of the men were white. Five were African Americans and one of these, Shields Green, was a fugitive slave of pure African ancestry.

Green was acquainted with Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist. He joined him in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where John Brown was to be the speaker. Brown was primarily interested in recruiting Douglass to be a part of the raid but was unsuccessful. However, he did recruit the young fugitive slave to join the party. Green was captured at Harpers Ferry and later executed. It was reported that he, like Copeland, was twenty-three.

Near midnight on Sunday, October 16, 1859, Leary and others under Brown's leadership entered the town of Harpers Ferry and seized the federal rifle factory, the armory where heavy military equipment was made, and the arsenal where guns and ammunition were stored. Leary, Copeland, and John Henry Kagi, a white raider, became isolated in the armory called Hall's Rifle Works. When things began to go wrong with the raid, the three men made a run for it, heading down to the Shenandoah River. But they were caught in crossfire. Kagi was killed, and Leary was shot several times. He was captured, but his wounds were so severe that he died the following morning. Before his death, he was able to dictate messages to his family. Copeland, too, was captured alive. Although he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, he impressed many with his courage. His dignity continued to the gallows.

A monument was erected by the citizens of Oberlin in honor of Leary, Copeland, and Shields. The eight-foot marble monument is located in Vine Street Park where it was moved in 1971. The Leary child would subsequently be educated by James Redpath and Wendell Phillips.

Family Legacy of Fighting Slavery

Leary also had other relatives who fought to end slavery. One was Aaron Revels, a soldier of African descent who fought in the American Revolution. His daughter, Sally Revels, was Lewis Leary's grandmother and Hiram Revels' aunt. Reverend Hiram Revels was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and a militant abolitionist. He eventually discontinued his connection with the African Methodists and joined the Methodist Episcopal North denomination. In 1870, he later became the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

Leary's relatives in North Carolina joined the Civil War effort and supported the Union troops. Seven family members, including Leary's brother John S. Leary, attached to James Montgomery's Brigade when the 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry became the 35th Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). James Montgomery was a former Kansas guerilla fighter associated with John Brown—one who was on his way to assist at Harpers Ferry until the battle ended too soon. Brother John S. Leary became a representative of the North Carolina legislature in 1868. He then earned a law degree from Howard University and became the first African in America to be a member of the bar of North Carolina.



"Leary, Lewis (Sheridan)." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.


"Blacks in the Harper's Ferry Raid." Negro History Bulletin 34 (October/November 1971): 315.


"The 1859 Raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry." http://www.kouroo.info/page5.html (Accessed 2 December 2005).

"Charles Henry Langston and the African American Struggle in Kansas." Excerpt from Kansas History 22 (Winter 1999/2000): 268-83. http://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1999winter_sheridan.htm (Accessed 2 December 2005).

"John Brown's Black Raiders." http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2941.html (Accessed 2 December 2005).

"John Brown: The Conspirators Biographies." http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/jbrown/men.html (Accessed 2 December 2005).

                                    Mattie McHollin

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